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CyclingQuotes gives a detailed analysis of Pro Team Astana

Photo: A.S.O.




26.12.2016 @ 15:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The holiday is over and it is time for the professional riders to start their serious training for the 2017 season. After the team building activities at the first team meetings in November, the month of December is traditionally the time for the first real training camps where the first drafts of the season schedules are made and just a few weeks later, the cycling season is in full swing at the Tour Down Under. During the next few weeks, CyclingQuotes prepares you for the coming season in a series of analyses where we take a detailed look at each of the 18 WorldTour teams and what to expect during the next 12 months.


Below we take a look at Astana.


Returning riders

Fabio Aru, Dario Cataldo, Laurens De Vreese, Daniil Fominykh, Jakob Fuglsang, Andrey Grivko, Dmitriy Gruzdev, Aman Kamyshev, Tanel Kangert, Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev, Miguel Angel Lopez, Alexey Lutsenko, Dias Omirzakov, Luis Leon Sanchez, Michele Scarponi, Paolo Tiralongo, Ruslan Tleubayev, Artyom Zakharov, Andrey Zeits


New signings

Pello Bilbao (Caja Rural), Zhandos Bizhigitov (Vino4Ever), Matti Breschel (Cannondale), Sergei Chernetckii (Katusha), Oscar Gatto (Tinkoff), Jesper Hansen (Tinkoff), Riccardo Minali (neo-pro), Moreno Moser (Cannondale), Nikita Stalnov (Astana City), Michael Valgren (Tinkoff),


Riders leaving the team

Valerio Agnoli (Bahrain-Merida), Maxat Ayazbayev (?), Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo), Eros Capecchi (Etixx-QuickStep), Andrea Guardini (UAE Abu Dhabi), Davide Malacarne (?), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Diego Rosa (Sky), Gatis Smukulis (Delko Marseille), Alessandro Vanotti (?), Lieuwe Westra (Wanty-Groupe Gobert)


Analysis of the transfer season

Astana is one of the WorldTour teams that have got the most significant overhaul for the 2017 season. No less than 11 riders will be leaving the team while 10 new additions have been signed. However, it is hard not to regard the overall outcome of the transfer campaign as negative for the Kazakhs. Whenever a team loses a rider that has won all grand tours, it is of course an irreplaceable loss but unfortunately the team has not managed to bring in any kind of replacement. Vincenzo Nibali’s absence will be dearly felt and it will be up to Fabio Aru and other riders to try to fill his enormous shoes. With no big signing for the 2017, younger riders have to step up significantly.


The transfer campaign has had a surprise focus. Until now, Astana have been mostly focused on the GC in grand tours and even though the signing of riders like Lars Boom was an indication that they wanted to have a bigger impact in the classics, they have always played a minor role in the one-day races. For 2017, they have done very little to strengthen their stage racing team and most of their signings have clearly been brought in to strengthen their depth in the classics.


The classics signings include Michael Valgren, Moreno Moser, Matti Breschel and Oscar Gatto and the addition of those four riders should make sure that Astana will have more cards to play on the cobbles. At the same time, however, they have lost Lars Boom, their leader for the cobbled races, and none of the new signings seem ready to fill his shoes. Overall, they are less likely to win a cobbled monument but they will be less reliant on one rider.


The best signing is definitely Valgren. In 2016, he was a surprise runner-up in the Amstel Gold Race and his potential for the hilly classics is great. He doesn’t have much experience on the cobbles but there is no reason that he can’t be competitive in the Flemish races. At the same time, there is still room for much improvement and so it is a great long-term investment.


The signing of Moser is a bit of a wild card. It is now evident that he will never reach the lofty heights that his first year indicated but he is now a much better rider than the one who almost failed to finish a race in the top 100 in 2013 and 2014. In the last two years, he has been climbing pretty well and this year he was close to stage wins in both the Giro and the Vuelta. At the same time, he has improved his time trialling a lot and if he can keep that momentum, his versatility means that Astana can use him as a GC rider in short stage races, as a domestique and stage hunter in the grand tours and as a co-leader in the Ardennes.


Oscar Gatto is also no longer the rider he once was but it is hard to base too much on his 2016 season as he mainly rode for Sagan. His third place in the Arctic Race of Norway proves that the talent is still there and so he will be a valuable addition in the cobbled races, especially if he can become a bit more consistent.


Matti Breschel was once one of the most exciting talents for the cobbled races and his two Worlds medals made him one of the best riders for the big races. Unfortunately, the last few years have been rough and it is unlikely that he will be more than a domestique in his new team.


The grand tours have been less of a focus during the campaign and that leaves the management with a weaker team for the three-week races. Most importantly, the loss of Diego Rosa is huge and the new additions are unlikely to fill the gap.


On paper, the team have brought in four riders which are able to provide support in the mountains. The strongest of those is probably Pello Bilbao who has an untapped potential. The Basque proved that he can climb with the best at WorldTour level in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and he was close to winning the Tour of Turkey until he fell ill while leading the race. He never hit the same lofty heights in the second half of the year and still lacks quite a bit of consistency. However, as he continues to mature, he should be of valuable support in the mountains and with his fast finish, he may also pick up a win along the way.


Sergey Chernetckii is another solid addition but just like Bilbao, he lacks consistency. He showed flashes of potential in his first years but then seemed to struggle. In 2016, he took a huge step at the Tour de Suisse where he climbed at a new level. He is also a decent rouleur and if he can continue his development, he will be a solid support rider.


Jesper Hansen is more of a pure climber but like Bilbao and Chernetckii, his main problem has been inconsistency. He showed his potential by winning the Tour of Norway in 2015 and working for Alberto Contador in the mountains at that year’s Vuelta. Health issues ruined his 2016 season but if he can find the legs he had in Spain one year ago, he will be important for Aru. The final addition is Moser who is another solid, albeit very inconsistent addition.


The rest of the new signings are all neo-pros of which Nikita Stalnov is the most interesting. The Kazakh was third overall at the Tour of Turkey and it will be interesting to see what he can do at the highest level. Zhando Bizhigitov has finished in the top 10 in a few stage races in Asia but he doesn’t have much experience in Europe.


The final signing is Riccardo Minali and his inclusion is a bit more of a surprise. For the 2017 season, the team have lost Andrea Guardini which is no major setback. The team were not doing much to support their sprinter and his departure signals that they are turning away from the bunch sprints. Nonetheless, they have picked up Minali who has his best results in the fast finales.


In addition to Nibali, Rosa and Boom, the other significant loss is Lieuwe Westra. The Dutchman may have been highly inconsistent but no one can deny that he is a class rider when he hits his peak form. This year he was brutally strong in the 3 Days of De Panne and so his absence will invariably leave a gap to fill.


The rest of the departures are mainly domestiques and can be replaced. Most notably, Valerio Agnoli and Alessandro Vanotti who are two of Nibali’s closest allies, will leave the team. However, it remains a surprise that Vanotti has not followed his friend to Bahrain-Merida and that his career seems to be in limbo.


What to expect in the classics?

As said, Astana have not really been a classics team in recent years. In the past, they were very good in the hilly races – after all they have won Amstel Gold Race, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia during the last five years – but after Enrico Gasparotto’s and Maxim Iglinskiy’s departures, they have been heavily reliant on Vincenzo Nibali and Diego Rosa.


Nibali and Rosa have now left the team and the same goes for their leader in the cobbled races, Lars Boom. However, as we wrote in the previous section, the main goal of the transfer campaign has been to strengthen the team for the one-day races. Michael Valgren, Moreno Moser, Matti Breschel and Oscar Gatto have been signed to fill the gap and they will immediately get the chance to lead the team together with Alexey Lutsenko.


With no really fast finisher in the team, Astana won’t have much of a chance in Milan-Sanremo and the easier cobbled races so they have to look to the harder races like E3, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix to make their mark. Unfortunately, none of their signings will be able to fill Boom’s shoes and they no longer have a rider who can aim for victory in the biggest races on the cobbles. On the other hand, they have a broader team with more options and they will no longer be completely reliant on just a single rider.


Gatto, Breschel and Lutsenko are the riders with most experience on the cobbles. Gatto is a former winner of Dwars door Vlaanderen but he hasn’t shown much in the classics since then. This year he was Sagan’s lieutenant but he was never at his captain’s side. He needs to step up to deserve the leadership role that he is likely to have. As said, Breschel hasn’t shown much in the last few years and nothing really suggests that it is going to change in 2017.


Lutsenko has shown lots of promise but the talented Kazakh is very inconsistent. When he is on his best days like he was when he won stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse, he is absolutely flying and on paper he has the skills to do well on the cobbles. However, he still needs to prove that he can peak for the right day and perform in the long races. Jakob Fuglsang is a stage race rider but he did Flanders in 2016 and loved the experience. He may return in 2017 and even though he is never going to win the race, his endurance could bring him far in the monument.


It remains to be seen what approach Michael Valgren will have. With a second place in Amstel and top 15 in Liege, he has shown most in the Ardennes. However, he is not a real climber and he could be suited to the Flemish races too. He may need a year to learn his trade on the cobbles but he could be very strong in those races in the future.


In the Ardennes, the team is likely to be led Valgren, Lutsenko, Moser and Fuglsang. On paper, the former three can all do well in the Amstel Gold Race as they are all pretty fast and Valgren must be keen to improve on last year’s second place. Fleche Wallonne is probably too hard for the former three and too explosive for Fuglsang. However, it could be very interesting if the team lined up Miguel Angel Lopez (if he recovers from his injury in time) for that race as he has all the skills to do very well there in the future. In Liege, Lopez could also be a big surprise if he can handle the distance. Fuglsang has always been strong there but he lacks the sprint to win the race. Finally, Valgren could do well here but he probably needs a few more years to have a real shot at victory in a race that is currently a bit too hard for him.


The team is likely to play less of a role in the autumn classics, especially in easy races like Hamburg and Plouay. However, the Canadian races should suit a rider like Valgren and he should be capable of top 10 results there. The same goes for Lutsenko and Moser. Il Lombardia could be a good race for Fuglsang and Lopez but we doubt that they will have the form at that late point of the season. The team may also look to Aru, depending on what form he has after the Vuelta.


What to expect in the grand tours?

The team may have strengthened their roster for the classics but the grand tours are still where they really have to shine. With Nibali’s departure, all the pressure will be on Fabio Aru who will again skip the Tour de France and return to the formula that worked so well in 2014 and 2015. That means that he will go for the Giro-Vuelta double and there is no reason that he can’t be on the podium in both races.


Aru may have had a bad 2016 season but it is worth remembering that he actually did a pretty good Tour until his bad day on the penultimate stage. As usual, he seemed to hit peak form in the third week and he was actually riding really well in the Alps where he was one of the only riders to really attack Sky. He even did the best time trial of his life three days before the end of the race and if it hadn’t been for that terrible stage to Morzine, the outcome would have been completely different. The performance proves that it is still way too early to write Aru off and he fully deserves to be backed in both grand tours.


That also means that there will be little room for other objectives and the team is likely to be built fully around him. The loss of Rosa is significant but we can expect him to have riders like a resurgent Michele Scarponi, Tanel Kangert, Luis Leon Sanchez, Pello Bilbao, Moreno Moser, Paolo Tialongo and Jesper Hansen at his side. That’s still a pretty powerful team of climbers and Astana should be one of the most strongest teams in the mountains. At least one podium must be the minimum goal for Aru as he hopes to restore his status as one of the best grand tour riders in the world.


In the Tour de France, the main goal will again be the GC but here the goals are far less ambitious. Miguel Angel Lopez and Jakob Fuglsang will be the leaders and they will both target the overall standings. Fuglsang has proved that he can be in the top 10 and with little time trialling and less hard mountain stages, a spot in the lower part of the first ten is definitely possible.


However, it is Lopez that will attract most of the attention. The Colombian won the Tour de Suisse after just 18 months as a professional and that shows what a classy bike rider he is. In that race, he even showed huge TT progress and that only makes the picture more complete. Unfortunately, he crashed out of the Vuelta so he has never been riding at the highest level for more than nine days. On the other hand, he seemed to get stronger and stronger during the Tour de Suisse and this suggests that he has the skills to be a real grand tour rider. We won’t be surprised if Lopez turns out to be the revelation of the 2017 Tour de France.


The hierarchy will be less fixed in the Tour than in the Giro and the Vuelta where it will be all about Aru. That could open the door for aggressive riders to go for stage wins and Alexey Lutsenko could again deliver a gutsy ride in the mountains. He has already won stages in WorldTour races and he is destined to win a grand tour stage at some point.


What to expect elsewhere?

With a heavy grand tour schedule, Fabio Aru won’t be racing much in the one-week stage races on the WorldTour and it will be left to others to score points during the spring. Aru is likely to do Tirreno-Adriatico and some classics and use the Tour of Croatia as his final warm-up. He should be competitive in both stage races but with the Giro being his main goal, he is probably only able to go for victory in the latter race which is not on the WorldTour.


Instead, Fuglsang will be the main rider in the spring. However, the Dane is never going to win any of those and as the time trial is now a real weakness for him, it will be hard to be close to the podium. Lopez could really make his mark but as he is recovering from a bad injury, there is only a chance that he will be in form by the time we get to the Ardennes classics and the Tour de Romandie. In any case, the Colombian must be keen to try to defend his title in the Tour de Suisse.


Tanel Kangert won the Abu Dhabi Tour at the end of the 2016 season and he will be keen to get more personal chances. He is not climbing well enough to win at the WorldTour level but with his good TT skills, he can be in the top 10 in some of those races. Michele Scarponi will also be keen to capitalize on the great form he showed in 2016 but his poor TT skills will always make it hard for him in the one-week stage races.


The team will turn its attention away from the sprints and so most of the focus will be on the stage races. However, they are also likely to do several hilly one-day races in Italy. Pello Bilbao, Sergei Chernetskii, Oscar Gatto, Alexey Lutsenko, Moreno Moser and Michael Valgren are all pretty fast finishers and solid climbers and they are all capable of picking up wins in some of the smaller races during the year.


Who’s ready to surprise?

Miguel Angel Lopez is no longer a surprise in the one-week races but he could very well be the grand tour revelation of 2017. He will get a shot at the Tour de France and as we wrote above, there are signs that he has the ability to recover, climbing skills and TT potential to become one of the best in the three-week races. We won’t be surprised if he becomes the Adam Yates of the 2017 Tour de France.


Michael Valgren surprised many when he almost followed Michal Kwiatkowski in his winning attack at the 2014 Worlds. Since then, he has mostly worked for his team but in 2016 he showed his real potential with a second place in the Amstel Gold Race. Now he will be a leader at Astana and he has chances in most of the one-day races. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is probably still a bit too hard for him but if he goes for the full classics schedule, he can be up there in the easiest races in the Ardennes and on the Flemish cobbles.


As said, Alexey Lutsenko is hugely inconsistent and this means that he is unlikely to become a stage race rider. However, his best days are absolutely fantastic as he proved with his two wins at WorldTour level. He still seems to lack some tactical skills but as he matures, he will become both stronger and wiser. 2017 could still be too early but he is capable of winning both classics and grand tour stages.



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